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The Field of Philosophy

Philosophy is quite unlike any other field. It is unique both in its
methods and in the nature and breadth of its subject matter.
Philosophy pursues questions in every dimension of human life, and
its techniques apply to problems in any field of study or endeavour.
No brief definition expresses the richness and variety of philosophy.
It may be described in many ways. It is a reasoned pursuit of
fundamental truths, a quest for understanding, a study of principles
of conduct. It seeks to establish standards of evidence, to provide
rational methods of resolving conflicts, and to create techniques for
evaluating ideas and arguments. Philosophy develops the capacity
to see the world from the perspective of other individuals and other
cultures; it enhances one's ability to perceive the relationships
among the various fields of study; and it deepens one's sense of the
meaning and variety of human experience.
This short description of philosophy could be greatly expanded, but
let us instead illustrate some of the points. As the systematic study
of ideas and issues, philosophy may examine concepts and views
drawn from science, art, religion, poitics, or any other realm.
Philosophical appraisal of ideas and issues takes many forms, but
philosophical studies often focus on the meaning of an idea and on
its basis, coherence, and relations to other ideas. Consider, for
instance, democracy. What is it? What justifies it as a system of
government? Can a democracy allow the people to vote away their
own rights? And how is it related to political liberty? Considerhuman
knowledge. What is its nature and extent? Must we always have
evidence in order to know? What can we know about the thoughts
and feelings of others, or about the future? What kind of knowledge,
if any, is fundamental? Similar kinds of questions arise concerning
art, morality, religion, science, and each of the major areas of
human activity. Philosophy explores all of them. It views them both
microscopically and from the wide perspective of the larger
concerns of human existence.
Traditional Subfields of Philosophy

and to avoid adopting beliefs for which we lack adequate reasons. Medieval. to discover assumptions we did not know we were making. or merely matter and energy? Are persons highly complex physical systems. and can we be justified in our beliefs about what goes beyond the evidence of our senses. Click here for more on what logic is and why philosophers study it. Are there mental. It helps us assess how well our premises support our conclusions. and Twentieth Century . such as the inner lives of others or events of the distant past? Is there knowledge beyond the reach of science? What are the limits of selfknowledge? The History of Philosophy studies both major philosophers and entire periods in the development of philosophy such as the Ancient. Ethics takes up the meanings of our moral concepts—such as right action. or is there just the physical and the spiritual. epistemology and the history of philosophy. obligation and justice—and formulates principles to guide moral decisions. metaphysics. for instance. to see what we are committed to accepting when we take a view. Here is a brief sketch of each. and abstract things (such as numbers). whether in private or public life.The broadest subfields of philosophy are most commonly taken to be logic. Logic also helps us to find arguments where we might otherwise simply see a set of loosely related statements. or do they have properties not reducible to anything physical? Epistemology concerns the nature and scope of knowledge. Nineteenth Century. and to formulate the minimum claims we must establish if we are to prove (or inductively support) our point. What are our moral obligations to others? How can moral disagreements be rationally settled? What rights must a just society accord its citizens? What constitutes a valid excuse for wrong-doing? Metaphysics seeks basic criteria for determining what sorts of things are real. Logic is concerned to provide sound methods for distinguishing good from bad reasoning. ethics. What does it mean to know (the truth). Modern. and what is the nature of truth? What sorts of things can be known. physical.

A number of major questions in the philosohy of mind cluster in the area of action theory: What differentiates actions. for example intentions and beliefs. their influence on others. will. The history of philosophy not only provides insight into the other subfields of philosophy. So are major movements within a nation. such as raising an arm. It seeks to understand great figures. the nature of religious language. personality. such as existentialism and phenomenology. Click here for a chronological map of the great philosophers. The philosophy of religion treats these topics and many related subjects. Special Fields of Philosophy Many branches of philosophy have grown from the traditional core areas. from mere body movements. passion. emotion. The philosophy of mind addresses not only the possible relations of the mental to the physical (for instance. Another traditional concern of metaphysics is to understand the concept of God. Both metaphysics and epistemology have sought to assess the various grounds people have offered to justify believing in God. including special attributes such as being all-knowing. desire. . such as the rising of an arm? Must mental elements. or can actions be explained by appeal to ordinary physical events? And what is required for our actions to be free? Philosophy of Religion. such as the relation between faith and reason. as in the case of American Philosophy. and others. such as British Empiricism and German Idealism. being all-powerful. Philosophy of Mind. and their importance for contemporary issues. as well as international movements with a substantial history. The history of philosophy in a single nation is often separately studied. and the question of how a God who is wholly good could allow the existence of evil. sensation. feeling. the relation of religion and morality. it also reveals many of the foundations of Western Civilization. This subfield has emerged from metaphysical concerns with the mind and mental phenomena. to brain processes).periods. but the many concepts having an essential mental element: belief. and being wholly good. enter into adequate explanations of our actions. What follows is a sketch of some of the major ones.

for instance genetic engneering and experimentation using human subjects. and fascism. and the appropriate limits. and the possible connections among the various branches of science. How. how law is or should be related to morality. The Philosophy of Law explores such topics as what law is. biology. economics. anarchism. into philosophy of physics. is psychology related to brain biology. and what sorts of principles should govern punishment and criminal justice in general. and other sciences. and ethical standards for medical research. on free expression in the arts. have come major subfields. Philosophy of science clarifies both the quest for scientific knowledge and the results yielded by that quest. and theories. if any. Other topics often pursued are the nature . It also examines the nature and possible arguments for various competing forms of political organization. Philosophy of science is usually divided into philosophy of the natural sciences and philosophy of the social sciences. too. It does this by exploring the logic of scientific evidence. Among these are the basis of compulsory education. Business Ethics addresses such questions as how moral obligations may conflict with the profit motive and how these conflicts may be resolved. This is probably the largest subfield generated by epistemology. what kinds of laws there are. explanations. From ethics. and many other problems concerning government. Political Philosophy concerns the justification—and limits—of governmental control of individuals. the nature of scientific laws.Philosophy of Science. and biology to chemistry? And how are the social sciences related to the natural sciences? Subfields of Ethics. Medical Ethics addresses many problems arising in medical practice and medical science.Social Philosophy. welfare democracy (capitalistic and socialistic). It has recently been divided further. the basis of economic freedom. the justice of taxation. the meaning of equality before the law. moral questions raised by special procedures. the possible grounds for preferential treatment of minorities. treats moral problems with large-scale social dimensions. psychology. such as abortion and ceasing of life-support for terminal patients. often taught in combination with political philosophy (which it overlaps). such as laissez-faire capitalism. Among these are standards applying to physician-patient relationships. communism. for instance.

and to morality. and Philosophy of Film. Philosophy of Culture. This is both because philosophy touches on so many . Since language is crucial in nearly all human activity. Among the subfields not yet mentioned. the relations between words and things. the various theories of language learning. religion. This is one of the oldest subfields. and how the arts are related to one another. Philosophy of Feminism. Philosophy of History. and literature. It treats a broad spectrum of questions about language: the nature of meaning. raise new intellectual problems. Philosophy of Logic. It concerns the nature of art. Other Subfields. and their relations to other institutions. and it is in the nature of philosophy as critical inquiry to develop new subfields when new directions in the quest for knowledge. and other important elements of human life. but often taught at least as part of other courses. Philosophy of Art (Aesthetics). Major questions in aesthetics include how artistic creations are to be interpreted and evaluated. the philosophy of language can enhance our understanding both of other academic fields and of much of what we ordinarily do. and the distinction between literal and figurative uses of language. There are many other subfields of philosophy. Philosophy of Education. he Uses of Philosophy General Uses of Philosophy Much of what is learned in philosophy can be applied in virtually any endeavour. Philosophy of Linguistics.and scope of the social responsibilities of corporations. or in any other area of human activity. Philosophy of Medicine. sculpture. Click here for a map of the major branches of philosophy. Philosophy of Mathematics. Philosophy of Language. Philosophy of Criticism. This field has close ties to both epistemology and metaphysics. including both the performing arts and painting. their rights in a free society. science. to natural beauty. are Inductive Logic.

And it helps one to synthesize a variety of views or perspectives into a unified whole. and to extract what is essential from masses of information. These capacities can be developed not only through reading and writing in philosophy. It provides some of the basic tools of self-expression—for instance.subjects and. It helps one to analyze concepts. but also through the philosophical dialogue. systematic arguments— that other fields either do not use. It thereby helps one develop the ability to be convincing. that is so much a part of a thoroughgoing philosophical education. General Problem Solving. and helps one to eliminate ambiguities and vagueness from one's writing and speech. or use less extensively. Writing Skills. and many regularly assigned philosophical texts are unexcelled as literary essays. skills in presenting ideas through well-constructed. and descriptive writing through detailed . and apt examples. One learns to build and defend one's own views. argumentative writing through developing students' ability to establish their own views. Persuasive Powers. and to indicate forcefully why one considers one's own views preferable to alternatives. to deal with questions of value. It helps one both to distinguish fine differences between views and to discover common ground between opposing positions. Writing is taught intensively in many philosophy courses. to appreciate competing positions. enhances one's ability to explain difficult material. arguments and problems. Communication Skills. good arguments. in a way no other activity does. Philosophy also contributes uniquely to the development of expressive and communicative powers. especially. Philosophy provides training in the construction of clear formulations. It helps one to express what is distinctive of one's view. Philosophy teaches interpretive writing through its examination of challenging texts. comparative writing through emphasis on fairness to alternative positions. one's problem-solving capacities. The study of philosophy enhances. because many of its methods are usable in any field. It contributes to one's capacity to organize ideas and issues. definitions. in and outside the classroom.

Since all fields of knowledge employ reasoning and must set standards of evidence. and objective methods for assessing ideas and proposals. that follow graduation. and philosophy of art is important in understanding the arts. both in college and in the many activities. Understanding Other Disciplines. moreover. Philosophy of science. Philosophy is indispensable for this. essential in assessing the various standards of evidence used by other disciplines. challenging problems. such as the nature of its concepts and its relation to other disciplines. are not usually pursued in it. are emphasized in philosophical writing. Philosophy of literature and philosophy of history are of similar value in understanding the humanities. Originality is also encouraged. logic and epistemology have a general bearing on all these fields. But philosophy has further uses in deepening an education. and students are generally urged to use their imagination and develop their own ideas. It also emphasizes development of a sense of the new directions suggested by the hypotheses and questions one encounters in doing research. It should be clear that the study of philosophy has intrinsic rewards as an unlimited quest for understanding of important. Strucure and technique. then. Development of Sound Methods of Research and Analysis. do research. selection of relevant data. do not belong to that discipline. professional and personal.portrayal of concrete examples: the anchors to which generalizations must be tied. and are philosophical in nature. Many important questions about a discipline. and put problems into manageable form. The Uses of Philosophy in Educational Pursuits The general uses of philosophy just described are obviously of great academic value. Philosophical thinking strongly emphasizes clear formulation of ideas and problems. Philosophy is. Philosophers regularly build on both . is needed to supplement the understanding of the natural and social sciences which one derives from scientific work itself. Still another value of philosophy in education is its contribution to one's capacity to frame hypotheses. for instance.

or even move into new careers. many of the capacities which the study of philosophy develops: for instance. people trained in philosophy are not only prepared to do many kinds of tasks. and to boil down complex data. the ability to solve problems.the successes and failures of their predecessors. Philosophy need not be mentioned among a job's requirements in order for the benefits derivable from philosophical study to be appreciated by the employer. more readily than others. Regarding current trends in business. Students are understandably preoccupied with getting their first job. they can also cope with change. For that reason. but even from a narrow vocational point of view it would be short-sighted to concentrate on that at the expense of developing potential for success and advancement once hired. and reward. in which philosophy is a central . moreover. determined that majors in liberal arts fields. to communicate. The Uses of Philosophy in Non-Academic Careers It should be stressed immediately that the non-academic value of a field of study must not be viewed mainly in terms of its contribution to obtaining one's first job after graduation. and those benefits need not even be explicitly appreciated in order to be effective in helping one advance. They are transferable not only from philosophy to non-philosophy areas. a writer in the New York Times reported that "businessmen are coming to appreciate an education that at its best produces graduates who can write and think clearly and solve problems" (June 23. These capacities represent transferable skills. A person with philosophical training can readily learn to do the same in any field. It should also be emphasized here that—as recent studies show— employers want. particularly given how fast the needs of many employers alter with changes in social and economic patterns. to assess pros and cons. It is therefore crucial to see beyond what a job description specifically calls for. but from one non-philosophical field to another. to organize ideas and issues. What gets graduates initially hired may not yield promotions or carry them beyond their first position. A recent longterm study by the Bell Telephone Company. 1981).

9th District. medical. and the work of some of them.) As all this suggests. when they have mastered techniques of scholarship and discipline. The second applies to the whole of life. sales. but into computer science. 1982. "continue to make a strong showing in managerial skills and have experienced considerable business success" (Career Patterns. They have gone not only into such professions as teaching (at all levels). whether through a major or through only a sample of courses in the field. 1981. for a senior congressman. management. medicine.discipline. by Robert E. February 2. and law. Indiana. March 25. As law. there are a least two further points to note. The study concluded that "there is no need for liberal arts majors to lack confidence in approaching business careers". business. philosophy is excellent preparation for the training and later careers of the professionals in question. (Lee H. public relations. publishing.) In emphasizing the long-range benefits of training in philosophy. First. there are people trained in philosophy in just about every field. philosophy can yield immediate benefits for students planning postgraduate work. (Wall Street Journal. The ability to analyze a problem carefully and consider it from many points of view is one. Hamilton. A third is the ability to handle the many different kinds of problems which occupy the congressional agenda at any time. Another is the ability to communicate ideas clearly in a logically compelling form. and other fields. A related point is made by a Senior Vice President of the American Can Company: Students with any academic background are prepared for business when they can educate themselves and can continue to grow without their teachers. criminal justice. prompted him to say: It seems to me that philosophers have acquired skills which are very valuable to a member of Congress. and when they are challenged to be all they can be. Some professionally trained philosophers are also on legislative staffs. The first concerns the value of philosophy for vocational training. and other professional school faculty and admissions personnel have often said. In preparing to enter such . Beck).

It can give one self-knowledge. a study of principles of conduct. Indeed. have special requirements for post-graduate study. and nearly everyone is guided by philosophical assumptions. and intellectual zest. even if unconsciously. To a large extent one can choose how reflective one will be in carifying and developing one's philosophical assumptions. foresight. a quest for a comprehensive understanding of the world. Philosophy broadens the range of things one can understand and enjoy. its benefits for one's public life as a citizen can be immeasurable. special pleasures of insight. and through its contribution to one's expressive powers. communication with many different kinds of people. and its methods may be used in the study of any subject or the pursuit of any vocation. it nurtures individuality and self-esteem. It also develops understanding and enjoyment of things whose absence impoverishes many lives: such things as aesthetic experience. The second point here is that the long-range value of philosophical study goes far beyond its contribution to one's livelihood. or public administration. Philosophical training enhances our problem-solving capacities. a student may of course major (or minor) both in philosophy and some other field. In these and other ways the study of . It can provide. Through all of this. which. Every domain of human experience raises questions to which its techniques and theories apply. the discerning observation of human behavior. our abilities to understand and express ideas. Its value for one's private life can be incalculable. a reasoned pursuit of fundamental truths. to one's reading and conversation.fields as computer science. It can lead to self-discovery. and our persuasive powers. and self-renewal. management. and how well prepared one is for the philosophical quesions life presents. Conclusion Philosophy is the systematic study of ideas and issues. and a sense of direction in life. lively discussion of current issues. like medicine. One need not be unprepared. philosophy is in a sense inescapable: life confronts every thoughtful person with some philosophical questions. and much more. expansion of consciousness.

and its methods. particularly in its development of many transferable skills. and an enlightened consciousness are never obsolete. A major or minor in philosophy can easily be integrated with requirements for nearly any entry-level job. responsibility. a strong sense of relevance. but philosophy has traditionally pursued these ideals systematically. This makes philosophy especially good preparation for positions of leadership. well constructed prose. judgemental. and the capacity to resolve human conflicts cannot be guaranteed by any course of study. but philosophical training. is especially significant for its long-term benefits in career advancement. Sound reasoning. analytical. nor are they subject to the fluctuating demands of the market-place. The problem-solving.philosophy contributes immeasurably in both academic and other pursuits. or management. and its ideas are of constant use in the quest to realize them. maturity of judgement. to the full developent of these qualities. and synthesizing capacities philosophy develops are unrestricted in their scope and unlimited in their usefulness. and in many cases the only route. critical thinking. . its literature. The study of philosophy is the most direct route. Wisdom. leadership.